Analysis: People can work from anywhere. College students should come from anywhere, too.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next year, Idaho Education News will provide in-depth, ongoing coverage of the challenges facing higher education during the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s our latest installment in this project.)

The work-from-home movement provides an opportunity for higher education.

Here’s why. The coronavirus pandemic has forever changed the workplace, allowing more people to do their jobs wherever they choose. If the office walls are coming down — metaphorically speaking, at least — colleges and universities need not just recruit students from tried-and-true high-achieving high schools. They can and should have a better chance at recruiting in rural communities, attracting students who want to get an education and make a living closer to their hometown.

These pieces started to come together for me Wednesday night, as I listened in on a webinar sponsored by the University of Phoenix. The topic was the future of work — which is, of course, inextricably tied to the future of higher education. Reflecting this reality, the panel mixed corporate executives and college administrators, including Boise State University President Marlene Tromp.

The consensus from the business leaders: Work from home is here to stay, in some form. Some workers will want to come back to the office — and some employers will want to recapture the creative flow and brainstorming that comes from face-to-face meetings. But many employees will want to keep the option of working from home, and take advantage of the mobility that comes with it.

The “work-from-anywhere” movement means talented workers don’t have to gravitate in cities, said Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard University. Remote and rural communities will be able to attract and retain professionals who are drawn to the lifestyle.

“I think it can really change the spatial distribution of talent in this country,” Choudhury said.

That’s a fair point, but not really a new one. The concept of the mobile creative professional has been around for a long time. So long that, once upon a time, these workers were actually called “modem cowboys.”

Yes, modems. Let’s pause here to recall the screech of a low-speed connection, just for old times’ sake.

OK. Back to 2021 and our work-from-anywhere moment.

If rural America can compete for nomadic talent, doesn’t it stand to reason that rural America can also nurture its native talent — with the support of the higher education system?

The reality is, that isn’t always happening.

Across the nation, higher education enrollment growth is concentrated on urban campuses, Tromp said. That certainly holds in Idaho, where the two fastest-growing public institutions — Boise State and the College of Western Idaho — serve the growing Treasure Valley.

And at the same time, colleges and universities have focused their recruiting efforts on suburban America — and suburban college-bound students.

“We tend to reach out to the same places,” said Kim Wilson, chancellor at the University of California-Riverside, “and that’s leaving an awful lot of America behind.”

Tromp agreed.

“If we only serve the same students, we’re really not creating the kind of richness in our work force and our student population that’s going to really pay us great dividends in the end,” she said.

Tromp also pointed to Idaho’s new cybersecurity major — a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the state’s colleges and universities. The program isn’t just an experiment in partnership: It could prepare graduates for a mobile career that will allow them to work wherever they choose.

Student recruiting is, inevitably, a student diversity issue. And notwithstanding the 2021 legislative session, and a furor falling under the heading of social justice, attracting and supporting a diverse student body is central to the health of higher education.

On Wednesday, college and university leaders agreed that they need to a better job of recruiting, outside the suburban student stereotype. At UC-Riverside — where students of color make up more than 80 percent of the overall enrollment — this means connecting with students closest to campus.

“They don’t go on tours of universities across the nation looking for their next school,” Wilcox said. “They’re not going very far from Mom and Dad. They’re not going very far from where they have to help Mom and Dad earn a living.”

In Idaho, that means reaching out to the student populations that have been largely left behind by the state’s multimillion-dollar efforts to boost college enrollment, such as first-generation college students, Hispanic students and rural students.

Plenty of obstacles stand between rural Idaho and the state’s college campuses.

There is geography — but the new Online Idaho higher education marketplace could help bridge this gap.

And, yes, there is a considerable political divide. In a state as red as Idaho, especially in its rural communities, it would be naïve to pretend otherwise.

But there is also a jobs issue: the gap between many resource-based jobs and the careers that require a degree. That gap will never go away. But in a changing work environment, young adults don’t necessarily have to choose between pursuing a career and keeping their roots in rural communities.

The pandemic has changed the workplace, and rapidly.

The challenge, for colleges and universities, is keeping up.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

More in-depth higher education coverage

Aug. 6: A pandemic makes old problems worse for Idaho higher education

Aug. 12: Idaho campuses prepare to reopen, but will students show up?

Aug. 24: Across the state, campuses open for an uncertain new year

Sept. 24: The feds’ coronavirus aid fills some gaps, but only some

Oct. 8: Boise State faces a financial reckoning

Nov. 3: New Boise State program seeks to guide students through gap year

Nov. 12: In a pandemic, colleges struggle even more to attract Idaho graduates

Dec. 3: One semester down, a tougher semester ahead

Jan. 5: Instead of going on, Idaho high school graduates stayed home

Jan. 28: Previewing Idaho’s next higher education budget battle

Feb. 18: The day the 60 percent goal almost died

Feb. 25: The higher education Statehouse showdown starts next week

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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